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Book One Of The Black Ring
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-392-X
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 333 Pages
Published: January 2018

From inside the flap

Our world is just one thread among uncounted others in the weave of the greater reality. Each of these threads is another world, some rather similar to ours, some bizarrely different. Each world has a rich culture, which the agent of a dark outside force is seeking to destroy.

Jeanette Delgado, small and young, struggles to make a success of the bookstore she runs with her husband, Steve. After he is killed in a freak accident, she is chosen, while still grieving, by powers she doesn’t understand, to go to one threatened world, then another, and another, each time to assume the role of the hero. She has never been independent a day in her life.

Like her predecessors, her task is to try to prevent the agent of destruction from achieving its goal. In each world she is tested, and must discover the curage, the strength, and the leadership she never knew she had. In the end, she learns to accept her role, and decides to anticipate her enemy, by going to the next threatened world under her own power.

It all begins at the bonfire in her back yard, when she is dropped suddenly into the cavern of blue flames.

Zhanai (Excerpt)

Chapter One: Bonfire

The bonfire was bigger than she had thought it would be. The flames leaped six, seven, eight feet into the late afternoon summer sky, and were reflected in the windows of the house, and of the smaller of the two garages. The larger garage was on the other side of the back yard.

It was just a tree, just the remains of a large Siberian elm, fully dead at last since fall. But she was glad to see it burn, as if, somehow, its destruction by fire could heal the damage it had done.

Burning the tree was the right thing to do. Except for the image of the pleading woman in the dancing flames.


Jeanette had first seen the woman about five weeks ago, when Steve had taken her to her favorite candle-lit restaurant. There was no special reason, he just did things like that sometimes. She had first noticed something odd about the two flames of the candles while waiting for desert. When she looked directly at them, she saw that there was a tiny face in each. The two were the same, the face of a woman which wavered when the flames did. Steve noticed her startlement and asked her about it. She mentioned the face before thinking, and he assumed that she was seeing the same kind of illusory face that one sometimes sees in a cluster of leaves, or in the texture of a rock. She did not insist.

The second time was a morning two days later, when sunlight from the bathroom window reflected off the surface of the mirror, making it difficult for her to see herself. This time the image - in the glare, not in the mirror itself - was life-sized, but transparent like the glare on the glass. She stared at it, unable to think. The woman was young, and attractive, and distressed. Then the light changed, and the glare and the image were gone.

The face had appeared after that, with greater or lesser clarity, in most glassy reflections, was hinted at in the glints off chrome, and was clearly visible in the stove flame when it was turned up high. She didn't mention it to Steve again, afraid he might think she was hallucinating.

She had known, before starting the bonfire, that the woman would be there, but she did it anyway. She had cut the tree up, and she could have left it for weeks if it were just a matter of clearing away the sections of trunk, the branches, the twigs and leaves. But every time she saw it all lying there, it was as if she were seeing it whole, the first time after it had fallen. The need for emotional release made her burn the tree now. She needed to act out her anger and her grief in some physical way, even if there was the inexplicable image of a woman in the fire. The tree would burn, and then it would be over.

There was nothing unusual down near the coals, only the shimmering shapes from which people's imaginations sometimes created pictures. The image of the woman was in the upper flames, flickering not quite in synchrony with their dance. She watched, and the image became stronger, if not clearer, many subtly differing images one after the other, superimposed on each other.

The woman was five or six years older than she, dressed in what looked like a bad movie's idea of rustic medieval clothing, a dark brown vest laced over a rather full-sleeved shirt of pale muted green, and dark, almost black trousers, rather loose around the legs, held up by a broad black belt, with a heavy but plain brass buckle. Something hung from the belt by her left hip. The woman seemed to be looking right at her, though it was impossible to tell for sure with the images so rapidly replacing each other. And though the woman did not hold out her hands to her, there was more than a suggestion, felt rather than seen, of pleading, in her posture, and in her expression.


She tossed another dry branch onto the blaze and stepped back out of the ensuing shower of sparks. Even if they landed on her they wouldn't hurt her. Her tee shirt was soaked with sweat, front and back, and her hair was just as wet and hung unpleasantly around her face. She wanted the tree gone tonight, so that she wouldn't have to see it whenever she came out into the back yard.

The funeral, only yesterday, had left her exhausted. It had been closed-casket of course. But she kept on imagining that she could see through the dark polished mahogany, and the steel which lined it. Sometimes the image in her mind was of Steve as she had seen him sleeping next to her. At others, it had been as he had looked when the rescue squad had finally gotten him out from under the tree she was now burning. Either way, the anguish made her throat clench, her stomach knot, and the skin of her face and arms tight and hot. But she had not cried.

Old Mr. Seaton, her neighbor on the side beyond the fire, came out into his back yard and up to the fence. He stood there a moment, hands in his pockets, watching. "I see you got most of it." He was somewhere in his late seventies, long retired, stocky, bald, and pleasant in a placid sort of way. "Looks like you'll finish up before it gets too much later."

"I hope so. I'm more tired than I thought I would be."

"Of course you are." He looked at her a moment, then turned his attention back to the fire.

"And then I'll have to clean up this mess tomorrow."

"Be careful. Sometimes coals can keep going for a long time under a heap of ashes like that."

"I will be. I'll soak them down before I go in tonight." She paused. "But then I'll have to let them dry, or they'll be too heavy for me to carry." She stared at the ground between her and the fire. "I might use some of it for fertilizer." Just words, to be polite.

"You could do that," Mr. Seaton said. There were few flower beds in his yard, but there were luxuriant bushes, different kinds with interesting foliage, growing against the house and the single-car garage. The lawn was perfectly smooth and green. He mowed it almost every Sunday.


He had watched, standing in almost exactly the same place, when she had started the fire earlier in the afternoon. "Are you sure you want to do that now?" he asked her. "You look awfully tired. It'll burn better after it's had a few more days to dry out."

"I'll be all right. It's had the whole winter to dry out. I just can't stand to have it lying here any longer. Besides, I already started it."

"It'll make a pretty big fire. You'll be out here a long time looking after it."

"I can do it. I've got a hose. Is it all right?"

"I don't mind. I understand." He watched her silently for a moment. "You were such a happy couple."

She couldn't answer him.

The Jacobis, on the other side of the yard, never came out to visit the way Mr. Seaton or his daughter did. They hadn't come out that afternoon either, so maybe they didn't object to the fire. They knew as well as anybody what had happened.

Mr. Seaton watched a little longer, then went back inside. Jeanette threw on a couple of the smaller branches. Burning the tree, after cutting it up all by herself, was a way to work out her anger. The tree had not fallen deliberately, but punishing it with fire gave her a vent for her grief, as well as for her anger.


Jeanette Delgado was a small woman, not quite five feet tall, and less than a hundred pounds. Steve would not have let her do a job as physically demanding as this all by herself. It wasn't that he was - had been - chauvinistic, even though he was, a little bit. He let her do her share of moving books at the store. But cutting up and burning the tree was, as he would have put it, an entirely different question. She would have thought so too, as small as she was. Until today. Her parents had believed that. And yet she had cut it up all by herself. She was proud of that, an achievement of which her parents had been convinced she was incapable.

The prospect of running Steve's chain saw that morning had almost stopped her before she started. She had used the loppers first, taking off all the smaller branches. She couldn't tell what part of the tree had died last fall, and what had been dead since before she and Steve had moved in three years ago.

She had gotten the saw from Steve's workbench in the large garage, and brought it out to the picnic table by the back door. She sat on the bench and looked at it for a long time. It was a small saw, it's blade just a little over a foot long, and it weighed less than ten pounds. But it was big enough for the job. She could have asked one of her neighbors for help. Even Mr. Jacobi might have been willing. But the thought of asking a favor made her uncomfortable. Steve's brother, Tony, would have been glad to help, to work out some of his own anger and grief, and she wouldn't have minded asking him, but he was already flying back to St. Louis. Besides, using Steve's saw herself on the tree that had killed him would be cathartic.

She knew how to run it from watching him cut wood before. She knew that to start it, the choke should be on and the stop button should be off. At last she worked up her courage, stood to get a better hold of it, and pulled the rope. It started the first time. If it hadn't, she might not have had the courage to try again.

Mrs. Malloy, from across the alley, came over right after Jeanette had started the saw, but before she had worked up the courage to actually start using it. She stood watching from just inside the gate in the back fence, between the two garages. "You could get the city to do that," she said. "I wouldn't touch one of those things," meaning the chain saw, "if you paid me real money."

Jeanette let the saw idle. "I think I'd rather do it myself." The saw frightened her, but she wouldn't back down, now that she had an audience. She gripped it firmly by the front and back handles, carefull not to touch the throttle, went to the tree, took a breath, and started to cut a branch, about half way between the trunk and the lopped-off end, where it was still thick enough to not bend too much when she pressed the saw against it. She pretended that she knew what she was doing, and started another cut after the first piece fell, about a foot and a half closer to the trunk. It took her a while to get used to the noise and vibration, and her arms and shoulders were going to be sore the next day, but to her surprise, she quickly learned how to use it.

"I guess it's better than just sitting and stewing," Mrs. Malloy said. "Something to do. You have to work it out of your system."

Jeanette paused. Mrs. Malloy was making her nervous. She couldn't run the saw and talk at the same time. "I want to get this thing out of here. I can't stand the sight of it any longer." She finished that branch and started on another. It wasn't going to be as difficult as she had thought.

"If you need any help," Mrs. Malloy said, "maybe Brian could come over. You'd have to wait until the weekend."

Jeanette finished the branch and paused again. "I appreciate it," she said, with the best smile she could make. "I'll let you know if it gets to be too much for me."

Mrs. Malloy nodded, watched for a few moments longer, then went back across the alley.


The saw had cut the branches away quickly, and she had cut the thinner pieces into manageable size, by holding them against the trunk with one hand, and the little saw with the other, bracing her elbow against her side. She had enough confidence, by the time she got to the trunk itself, to know that she would be able to finish the job. Of course, the fact that the trunk was hollow and half rotten made it easier. Damn tree.

There had been one bad moment when the saw stopped running. She pulled it out of the cut, took it over to the picnic table, and sat and stared at it for a few minutes. She was glad enough for the chance to rest a bit. Her ears were ringing and her hands were numb from the vibration. She was afraid she might not be able to get it started again.

She caught her breath after a few minutes, then took the saw into the large garage where Steve kept his tool box. Sitting next to it, on the workbench, was the gas can, the oil, and the coffee can to mix them in. Certainly the saw would stop if it had run out of gas. Which, in fact, it had. She found the manual in the top left drawer of the workbench, read how to mix the oil with the gas, and filled the saw's tiny tank.

She went back out to the tree and, starting at the small end, cut three sections off the trunk. And heard her father coming through the front gate behind her.

"Jeanette!" he called as he hurried down the walk beside the house. "What are you doing! Put that thing down before you hurt yourself!"

She didn't startle, for which she was thankful. She finished the cut, then let the saw idle while she turned toward him. Her mother was with him, looking equally shocked and anxious. "I've done pretty well so far." She tried to keep her voice level.

"I thought," her father said, "that you were going to hire somebody to take the tree away."

"I never said that." She turned back to the tree and started making another cut.

"Jeanette!" her mother cried.

"Put it down! Put it down!" her father insisted.

She forced herself to be steady, and to finish the cut. The eighteen inch section of log, not even four inches in diameter, dropped to the ground. "I've done this much." She looked at them and gestured at the piled branch segments with the saw. "I want to finish the job."

"Good Heavens," her mother said. "You didn't do that all by yourself. You're not strong enough. You must have had help. Let whoever it was come back and finish it up for you."

Jeanette did not answer. She turned back to the tree, and cut off another section, aware that, by now, her movements were confident and sure.

"Please, Jeanette," her father said. She let the saw idle. "Let it be. The city has a tree removal service -"

"I'm going to burn it." She didn't look at him. "I'll sell the larger pieces for firewood and burn the rest."

"Oh, no!" her mother said. "No, that's much too dangerous. Let the city take it away -"

"I'm going to burn it, Mother."

"Jeanette," her father said, "enough of this. Our plane doesn't leave for two hours yet. You have plenty of time to pack and come home with us. We can send for the rest of your things later."

"No. This is my home." The Seaton's back door opened and closed. She glanced around to see Mr. Seaton's unmarried daughter, coming down off the back step and over to the fence. She was maybe fifty, and stocky like her father, and had lived with him all her life.

"But Estefan is dead," her mother said. She never called him Steve. She didn't like nicknames. "You can't live here all alone."

"It's what I'm going to do, Mother. It's my house -"

"The bank owns the house," her father said.

"and there's Cat's Books to run -"

"You can't do that without help." her mother said.

"I can hire somebody. There's a young man who comes in a lot…." She looked toward the fence. Miss Seaton was watching them. She turned back to her parents. She revved the saw. "I'm staying."

"But what will we do with the ticket?" her father asked.

"Give it away. Get a refund." She turned back to the tree and started cutting off another section of the trunk.

She did not look at her parents. Perhaps they would have said something more, but Miss Seaton was looking on, and it would be most improper to argue family matters in front of someone who was just a neighbor. After a bit they went away.

"Would you like some iced tea?" Miss Seaton asked.

"Yes, thank you," Jeanette said.